Are old brains not as good as new brains? In some ways, they may be better!
Brain research has shown that old brains have a better chance than new brains of learning what to consider relevant and then bringing it to the forefront of thinking. New brains tend to consider everything, with little consideration for relevancy. The older and more experienced brain, due to being trained by its experience, filters–out all information from our senses that it thinks is presently unnecessary.
For an example of how this filter works, consider how you process information in a large social gathering where many different groups of people are engaged in many different conversations. You hear the noise of the various conversations, including some music, and still you are able to focus on a specific set of information from your senses. You may hear the music, hear your friend talking, hear the others around you talking, see others, see the musicians, smell perfume, smell food, etc., yet you have no trouble thinking about what you consider relevant. Apparently, the older brain is capable of doing this better than the younger one. Yea, for old brains! :-)This filtering system, referred to in the previous paragraph, is called the Reticular Activating System (RAS). It acts as a filter between your conscious and subconscious minds. Using the above example of processing information in a large social gathering, suppose as you are conversing with a group of friends, you suddenly hear your name mentioned by someone in another group, that before then, you were not paying any conscious attention to. When you hear your name, your RAS has most likely been programmed to bring to the forefront (conscious mind) the mention of your name. It’s this programmed aspect of the brain (RAS) that can be most helpful. It can help us better understand why it is hard to teach older brains.
So, why is it hard to teach older brains? Well, the RAS has either consciously or subconsciously been programmed and acts as a filter for what you focus your thinking on. A younger brain does not have the amount of programming that the older one does. The RAS in the younger brain is not as developed and therefore will consider almost everything brought to it by the senses. Of course, that can be overwhelming. It can also cause “information overload,” where the younger brain is unable to focus on anything relevant to its current task. To use a well-known metaphor, sometimes the younger brain, “can’t see the forest because of the trees.”
But, explaining how the RAS affects younger brains doesn’t answer the question, “Why is it hard to teach older brains?” The RAS can be a strength, but it can also weaken the power of the older brain. In fact, I suspect that it is the reason behind Yogi Berra‘s statement: “There are some people, who if they don’t already know, you can’t tell them.”
You see, if an older brain doesn’t know and the RAS is filtering out everything it doesn’t already know, then any new thing received, through the senses, will not be allowed into its conscious. The new information will be filtered-out and discarded. Ouch!
So, it’s important for all of us to realize that as we get older, each brain’s RAS is doing what it is designed to do – filter! Therefore, we need to consciously subject our older brains to new sensual experiences. Actually, they may not be new to us, but maybe just experiences that have been filtered out previously. The key is, understanding that we have such a system and that we are able to change or adjust the filter.
I realize that older brains process more slowly, but maybe that has more to do with how sophisticated our RAS has become and less with age. While the younger brain is quickly responding to all of the sensual information, perhaps the older brain is more thoughtful, careful, considerate and therefore, not making decisions quite as fast. I have read that 60 and 70-year-old brains are producing new neurons at the same rate as brains that are much younger. And, quickness of decisions are usually not as important as quality of decisions!
Are old brains as good as new brains? YES! And, especially when the older brain realizes that the RAS is simply a filtering system that does not distinguish between conscious and subconscious messages and/or information. So if the older brain wants to achieve a specific goal, then it must be made prominent in the conscious mind, which in turn, will be passed to the subconscious mind through the RAS. Knowing that we have a RAS and using it as a strength is much better than simply saying that we are too old to learn.
I have older friends who proclaim that they are too old to learn something new. One of my friends says she can’t learn how to use a new piece of software because she is just too old. From my point of view, she’s a bright person whose RAS filters out all things that involve doing something differently from what she currently knows. The instant that this new learning sensation enters her brain, her RAS filters it out and labels it as something she should ignore. And, that’s what she does. But suppose, she would consciously make a goal to learn how to use the new piece of software? Suppose she restates that goal over and over and over until it is in the forefront of her conscious mind? I think then, the goal would be brought to her subconscious mind and learning how to use the new software would be just a matter of time. The learning of the new software would be like a picture in her house that she looks at regularly. The main difference is this would be a picture in her mind instead of a picture in her house. She will then be an old brain that has learned how to learn something new. Using another metaphor, you may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but you can teach an old brain how to learn something new!
Really, what should we all do? Live life, stop wasting life no matter what the age AND check our filters! :-)
What do you think? Is your RAS filtering out something it shouldn’t? Is my old brain not as good as a young brain? For the last question, as long my filter is “cleaned” periodically, the answer is NO! :-)